To Avoid Pitfalls on Controversial Issues, Experts Say, Know Your Stuff

By Vaishali Honawar — July 25, 2006 3 min read
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Teachers’ thorough understanding of a subject and students’ respect for different points of view can help smooth the way for dealing with controversial topics in the classroom, professional-development experts say.

Dealing with politically charged subjects like immigration and stem-cell research, points out Thomas Hatch, an associate professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, presents a real dilemma for teachers. They want to talk to students about society and issues in the news, yet precisely because people disagree on such topics, teachers have to pay close attention to presenting its different sides.

“In general, many teachers feel like they want to make their work relevant to their students and often gravitate to the issues of the day. … They also want students to not only learn content and skills, but make sense of the world around them,” Mr. Hatch said. Teachers could benefit by not separating divisive issues from the curriculum, he added, and by making the curriculum itself a product of open discussion that reflects the point of view of many different groups.

Dennis Sparks, the executive director of the Oxford, Ohio-based National Staff Development Council, said that when he was a social studies teacher during the Vietnam War years, he and his colleagues would often invite guest speakers to class to talk on various sides of the issue.

“We also tried to have discussions, rather than just lectures, on important subjects … discussions that were bounded by certain rules of respect and how we would treat one another” even when people were not in agreement, Mr. Sparks said.

Teachers who take on subjects of contention have sometimes found themselves in rough territory. Jay Bennish was one of them. The high school teacher from Aurora, Colo., was suspended earlier this year for violating a school district policy that requires teachers to present varying viewpoints. He criticized President Bush’s policies on the war in Iraq, and called the United States “probably the single most violent nation on Planet Earth,” while talking to students on U.S. foreign policy, capitalism, and the war. Mr. Bennish later said he had been merely trying to get students to think critically about national affairs, according to news reports.

A student recorded the classroom discussion, parts of which were played on a local radio talk show. It set off several protests, with students and the community aligned both for and against Mr. Bennish, who was later reinstated.

Only the Topics Change

Teachers have long dealt with controversial issues in the classroom, said Kate Nolan, the chief officer of the professional services group at Learning Point Associates, a professional-development company based in Naperville, Ill. Only the topics that generate debate have changed over the years, she noted.

“Our focal point always begins with the easiest part of conversation—finding out what are the fact-based issues of content represented in your state or local standards,” Ms. Nolan said. From there, she said, Learning Point representatives ask teachers to focus on the factual basis of the matter under discussion and on representing views on different sides.

When the debates involve scientific questions, said President Linda Froschauer of the National Science Teachers Association, officials of the Arlington, Va.-based group “are doing a great deal more to educate teachers about the science behind these issues so they understand very clearly the scientific basis of it.”

The association often addresses such topics at national and area conferences and through its publications, she said, and offers teachers resources to better understand how to deal with difficult topics in the classroom.

For instance, the association’s Web site offers tips on teaching the theory of evolution, suggesting that teachers “emphasize evolution in a manner commensurate with its importance as a unifying concept in science and its overall explanatory power.” But, it adds: “Science teachers should not advocate any religious interpretations of nature and should be nonjudgmental about the personal beliefs of students.”

The NSTA also issues position papers on a variety of issues and brings in scientific authorities to speak with teachers on such subjects as evolution, dissection, and cloning, Ms. Froschauer said.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as To Avoid Pitfalls on Controversial Issues, Experts Say, Know Your Stuff


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